#93: Don’t Picture This: The Trouble With Selfies

My phone’s front camera is probably very confused. It has been severely underused. The back camera is not very happy either, but it gets used occasionally when I have forgotten to take my regular camera with me and need to take a picture. Very rarely does the front camera get to make a video call, but I prefer to use a real computer for that.

I don’t even really know what a “filter” is on the phone or one of these photo apps, or why I should be using it. That’s what Photoshop is for, isn’t it? Of course, I know, and I mockingly pretend not to know. Somehow. But somehow, I also don’t know.

It’s not that I don’t take any pictures ever. I’m a pathological picture taker, and I have spent quite some time thinking about Susan Sontag’s book On Photography, which successfully and disturbingly analyzes said pathology. Ideally, this reading is combined with Plato’s discussion of the power of writing as well as his metaphor of the cave, Walter Benjamin’s article “The Work of Art in the Time of Mechanical Reproduction,” Marshall McLuhan’s Understanding Media, and Neil Postman’s Technopoly and Amusing Ourselves to Death.

Combining the insights gained from this tour de force of media theory, it becomes clear that it is too simplistic to cling to the idea that technology would be basically neutral, would just be tool, and that it would depend on how to use it. Technology is far more than that. Its influence on our lives is thoroughly transformative. It lets us believe that it does our bidding while in fact we yield to its influence and needs just as much. We do have some control over how to use it, but even its availability changes the very ways we can think about it.

Do I need to know something by heart, or is it just enough to look it up? Do I focus on experiencing something in real life, or do I focus on recording it, transforming it from a continuum of active being to a frozen moment in time, a mere snapshot, something that will serve as a substitution for reality? What does this kind of technological reductivism do to the world thus captured, what does it do to what we think about this world and the living beings contained therein? What does it do to people if they are mainly understood through their media representations? What does it do to their notions of self if those representations are created by themselves even?

Whoever sat pretty for Leonardo when he created the Mona Lisa may rest safely in their grave shrugging off whatever Leonardo may have seen in them and showed of them in his famous painting. But what does this do to the person conducting a self-portrait? We know that Vincent van Gogh probably did not gain in personal happiness through his painting of self-portraits. He represented himself as himself. If you subscribe to the idea that Leonardo actually may have painted himself as a woman, as Lillian Schwartz suggests (and which sounds actually fascinating and has some level of plausibility), then Leonardo perfectly understood that any visual representation is always an interpretation. Certainly, Van Gogh knew that also.

Artists understand that even if you depict yourself or represent yourself, you are never being authentic: There is always something else happening. The self on the page, or in the picture, always has to be seen as a lyrical I. The “me, myself and I” that you see in self-reflective and self-portraying art is never the real self. It is a deliberately chosen perspective, a snapshot at a specific time, a setting in a particular scene, an inauthentic moment posing as authentic for a very clear artistic and dramatic purpose.

Reality cannot be captured, it can only be represented. Umberto Eco illustrates this in his short story ridiculing the creating a map of the empire in a 1:1 scale. The map would completely cover and crush the reality beneath it, as it would take over the entire space of the empire itself. Similarly, if we rely on nothing but representations of reality in order to understand it, we will limit ourselves to understanding the representations rather than reality itself. Granted, sadly, we need media and representations to even be able to conceive of reality. Our perception itself mediates the world around us. We are always sitting in Plato’s cave, we can never access reality as such. But we can understand that our tools of perception and the media we use to facilitate our perception in turn influence that perception also.

As Susan Sontag describes it, “Photographs really are experience captured, and the camera is the ideal arm of consciousness in its acquisitive mood.” This acquisition, this pictorial conquest, this obsessive need to claim some form of ownership of the world by possessing it through images eventually destroys our relation to the world. We substitute experience with representation, concreteness with abstraction, the world with pictures of the world, the self with pictures of the self.

This act of substitution, of representation, certainly affects how we see reality. The self, specifically if it is mainly communicated through pictures, will eventually conform to the pictures. As with many things, this is probably not a problem unless done to excess, but it can still fundamentally change how we see ourselves.

There is a reason – probably more psychological than religious – that some cultures have looked with suspicion at photographing people, or at depicting an image of divinity. That which can get captured, depicted, and represented so easily will lose its mystique, its transcendental qualities or – following Benjamin – its aura. Something happens once we fixate our selves through pictures. It happens both for others and for ourselves. But how do you represent yourself without losing some sense of self? Especially if this is a constant exercise in the performance of the self?

Should we see self-photography as an art form? For some, it certainly is; for others, the definition of art would probably have to be stretched a bit. But art certainly can be an escape clause here: it requires though – as illustrated above – a conscious act of deliberate self-distancing from the image of the self as performance.

Yet the context of such pictures of the self certainly matters also, whether we should see them as more artistic self-portraits or what is commonly described with the less high-brow term as selfies. As soon as a selfie is posted on social media, the battle for audience reactions begins. How many people like my picture? How many don’t? How many are seeing it? Is the picture being noticed? At what point though do these questions into something more personal? How many people like or dislike or notice me? Am I, as a person, liked, or is it the representation that is liked? Should my self – if a specific representation is liked – conform to the representation? Should I myself become the image I have put out there as an allegedly authentic image of myself (or of my self)?

Maybe this is the key: if the pretension of authenticity is taken at face value, selfies may well turn from being a possible work of art to an act of introspection through outside judgement, and become an exercise not of play but of masochism (or its psychological twin, narcissism). We know that social media itself should probably be better described as anti-social: They all too frequently are an exercise themselves, and not in sociality but in sadism. Artists all throughout time have suffered from bad reviews, and have tortured themselves through their art. Maybe we should thus see the selfie as the revenge of the self-portrait: May the same level of scorn be heaped on John or Jane Q. Public now as it was heaped on artists throughout the ages.

But that is certainly not something to be endorsed. Personally, I am staying out of the selfie game. There are plenty of ways to indulge in self-loathing; I certainly don’t need to document this in pictures on a regular basis.

#90: In Defense of “Wokeness”

A great deal of scorn and dismay is currently heaped on a movement or way of thinking that describes itself as “being woke” or “wokeness.” The terminology itself may shift, especially when faced with an onslaught of ongoing critique or with attempts to use it for corporate purposes.

Certainly, it is easy to ridicule any attempt at creating a serious social movement of goodwill and progressiveness. Without a certain amount of naiveté, nobody surely would be able to believe that we, as a culture, would be able to change the world for the better. Any grand attempts at changing the way we treat each other in actions and speech, the way we conduct policy and business, and the way we understand and approach our reality must seem maddeningly simple-minded and shortsighted given the vast, cynical history of a world that has never been too kind to its inhabitants.

Any utopian design to build a better planet, any belief that “a better world is possible,” stands in the way of the collective and depressing experience of humankind.

I am not saying that every single suggestion, critique, or demand is something that is yet fully fleshed out. There is still work to do, and we need to recognize that. But there is substance here.

“Wokeness” is something that is serious. It is about the recognition that despite decades, centuries, millennia of human cultural, political, and social development, we are still not where we would like to be, where we would actually need to be to live up to the promises not of politics, but of life itself.

We are all human beings. We are all living beings. We are all living on this one planet, which is dwarfed by a Vast universe. This is it, and this is us. We are all connected by genetics, history, necessity, locality, for better or worse. There is only one human race. There is only one planet Earth, with all the life on it.

We have tried countless ways of being mean to each other, to be downright sadistic, hateful, evil, uncaring, unthinking, indifferent; in thoughts and in actions. Do we want to continue down this path or not?

We are all imperfect beings, we are all fallible, none of us is perfect, but don’t we want to aspire to becoming better, to become more perfect – while still remaining humble?

Are we all not in this together? Do we not need to recognize each other as our relatives? After Cain kills Abel, he asks, Am I my brother’s keeper? It is the clearest accusation ever in one of our earliest texts: Yes, we are our brother’s, our sister’s, our father’s, mother’s, friend’s, or stranger’s relative, and yes, their fate is connected to ours. We have a responsibility to wake up from the lull of indifference, from the coldness of monetized relations, from divisions by class, race, gender, age, or others, and to wake up to not just the possibility, but the necessity to see our world anew, as a place for everybody, including ourselves.

This is what “wokeness” means: the unapologetic desire and audacity to care about each other, and the political will to create a society that is more kind, that knows truth, knows justice, values life and dignity and can be hopeful again that human beings actually have the capacity to grow and transcend our imperfections and past and current sins.

All the details, all the oversimplifications, imperfectly thought-through solutions, provocations both necessary and unnecessary – all of which needing well-meaning and substantial criticism –, all these, however, pale in comparison to the actual desire for a better world, which – naively or not – may indeed bring us hope, and eventually, a better world, filled not with indifference and hate but with compassion and all-encompassing love.

So say we all?

#89: Tragedy is the Nature of Life, and That is OK

In the classical tragedy, the hero fights against fate. The ending is already clear, and nothing the hero does, will change the outcome. Tragedy arises from this positionality. Caught between the now and the inevitable then, resistance is necessary but futile. Resistance is the resistance against death, the fight to stay alive against all odds, to stay moral in a world of immorality. All choices that have to be made only pertain to the interim between one’s own life and one’s own death. Nothing that is left behind either punishes or rewards us ourselves – even though we know deep down that we don’t know, and that is even more tragic – or we can just give up. This is our freedom. We know that it ends, that it all ends, our lives, the lives of our friends and family, our country, our civilizations, our planet, our sun, our universe. Everything dies.

This tragic truth however is not bad news. It just is. It is up to us to fill our lives with what we want. Is that a license to do evil? Maybe religion was invented for a reason, maybe we need the notion of an immortal soul that could be damaged by our choices in life. I don’t know. none of us knows. But whether or soul is mortal or immortal, whether we call it our soul or our psyche, whether we call it eschatology or psychology, suffering is suffering, and joy is joy. We either cause happiness or pain, and if we cause it in others, we know, deep down, we will cause it in ourselves. It is not difficult, and we all know that.

Do I choose to cause happiness or pain today? Certainly, sometimes we do have to make difficult choices. Sometimes temporary pain is necessary to gain greater joy. Different perspectives need to be navigated, compromises need to be made, negotiations need to happen, and we surely don’t benefit from simplistic certainty about what is right and what is wrong. This is the other tragedy of life:  We all make mistakes, there are no absolutes except the certainties of our fallibility and eventual death.

But again, this too needs to be embraced as liberating. Realizing the inevitable is the only way to psychologically manage our tragic situation, and to see the dark, maybe even divine comedy behind it all. Either this cosmic joke is on us, or we realize that we can laugh about ourselves, so that in the end we can say that we have understood our suffering and turned it into something worth living with, and even worth living for.

#86: Nature Is Stronger than Us: The Pandemic, not the Lockdown, Is the Problem

It appears that if you feel tired, exhausted, depressed, and have been doing so for months already, you are not alone. The entire world is out of balance. Nothing is normal anymore, no matter how much we may want to pretend it is.

Some people are blaming the lockdown for this feeling. We can’t do what we would normally be doing, and it is because decisions have been made and continue to be made time and again to close down parts of normal life and have us postpone living like we used to.

But this kind of reasoning looks at things backwards. No matter how we may want to rationalize it away, the real problem is the continued development of the pandemic. Will the vaccines work? Will we be patient enough to wait till we have enough immunity that there will not be anymore the pressing danger posed by the virus? Can we afford to be patient? At which point does it become unsustainable to wait for a better tomorrow?

Yet any attempt to reason ourselves out of this will fail. Lockdowns are in place because of deaths and serious conditions, which are a result of infections and occur in a time-delayed fashion. If we let infection numbers rise today, the consequences will be only become visible much later. We know that, and this is why infection rates are a good predictor for the future. Once they go down, the chances for variants to arise goes down, because only a virus that’s still out there can mutate.

This pandemic plays on our biggest weaknesses; socially, psychologically, fiscally. We are not built for this. A lot of what is happening may be counter-intuitive, but it is still real.

Maybe it helps to remind ourselves that we are not alone in feeling the impact of this, even though it hits some people harder than others. Is this a test then for our capacity to empathize and sympathize? Does this moment in time provide an opportunity, though ill-gotten, to revisit what we consider? Time will tell, but I doubt it.

You may believe in the capacity for people to change, yet history will prove you wrong all too frequently. Not to sound too fatalistically, but our societies function the way they do for a reason. Things may change occasionally, but they’ll always coalesce into a pattern over time. We will eventually forget this pandemic as we’ve forgotten all the ones before us, and we will probably be just as unprepared for the next one that is surely going to follow.

Epidemics and pandemics have killed entire civilizations, even though we do not want to see that either. We want to believe that it is our own agency that can both save and doom us; but all too frequently, it is just nature itself.

Maybe Jurassic Park holds the lesson here that we will need to keep hearing: “Nature finds a way.” For better or worse. No matter how much we try to self-evolve our way out of this, nature cannot be tricked, cannot be overcome, cannot be avoided. We ourselves may not be patient, yet nature is, always.

#79: The Need for the Public Understanding of Humanities and Social Science Theory

Words are easy. They are not formulas. You should just be able to read them and understand them instantly. Or so it goes.

We seemingly are living in a time where all the things talked about in the humanities and the social sciences in the recent decades are finally coming to have their day in the public consciousness. Words like “race”, “gender”, (not “class”, that is not of interest ever, really), “narrative,” “history,” “construction,” “capitalism,” “discourse,” “inequality,” “equity” etc. are thrown around with ease that you would think the entire world had just taken advanced theory graduate classes.

But of course, this is not the case. What has happened is that some of these terms – completely taken out of their “habitat”, their historical and philosophical context, have been unleashed as memes into the wild, devoid of their caveats, conditions, footnotes and complications – devoid of all things that make up the equivalent of a mathematical formula.

The perception that the “talking” and “writing” sciences should just be understandable “as is” appears to have made the rounds, and any complexity is denied as it would be deemed to just make this new pseudo-discourse boring, take all the fun out of it, and the possibility to monetize the outcry.

If you have been wondering, should you have been reading anything on this blog so far, what it is that I am actually doing, then you are not alone. It took me, myself and I an entirety of 23 years to comprehend what I have been on about on my blog and in my research. My real interest in this format seems to be the Public Understanding of the Humanities and Social Sciences.

I am trying not to be too pedantic, to have a bit of fun, to not be too dogmatic, to never be mean, and to always be open to new ideas.

Speaking of idea, isn’t that a difficult term? Ah, but I just promised to not be too pedantic, so there’s that for now…

#73: The Destruction of Creativity through “Social” Media

There used to be a magical time. You will remember it if you remember using MS Internet Explorer version 2 and above, Netscape Navigator 3 and the mighty Netscape 4 (Communicator). Search Engines (AltaVista, Lycos, Metacrawler, etc.) and Catalogues (Yahoo!) were two different things. Inktomi was not just an allusion to the Lakota spider-trickster (the original spiderman?) but the gold standard in search technology. Google was a nerdy new thing whispered about by tech-mages to their students (and still believed “don’t be evil”). Modems limited your internet speed, and if you had a chance to sit at a university computer, you hit the mother lode with terms of connection speed, and even a Windows NT machine!

I have a “bio-birthday” and a “web” birthday: on January 8, 1998, I built myself an awkward looking home at GeoCities’. This was the place to be, when GeoCities was not yet destroyed by yahoos who did not understand it. There were “neighborhoods”, I chose the sci-fi neighborhood (“Area 51”), and “Station”. Back then, it was clear that the internet was built for two things: Star Trek and pornography. I was definitely not doing the latter, thus Star Trek it would be. You can see early design versions of my site at my Layout History pages.

You had to learn how to do HTML, CSS, make graphics, logos, etc. You had to create your own content, thus you had to write, take pictures (analog!), scan them, reduce their filesize, create thumbnails, etc. Then, in a mad dash, a noisy modem session would be needed to upload the whole shebang to the respective FTP server. To find likeminded people, you joined a webring.

Web sites were wild areas for experimentation, and everyone who made one had to learn autodidactically, and had fun doing it. This was your own space, and it would be as good as your skills (and sense for layout and content) would be. You built your own identity. Your web site was an achievement, and once you felt it was good enough to accompany for longer, and once you found money to pay for it, it was time to get real. You dealt with InterNIC directly for your domain name, and would eventually get real server space.

The point is, you needed to learn, you developed skills, you learned about the nitty-gritty of the web. These were transferrable skills. You got to play, create something for yourself, and interact with like-minded people – who would actually get to e-mail you.

You still can do all these things, and some of them work better now. But there are monsters out there sucking all the creative energy out of the room in order to display shadows of it in their own space. MySpace provided a portal that still allowed for some wackiness to survive let people personalize the interface a bit more, but it was also the first step into a corporate world. Eventually, Facebook and all the rest have created a world where their own portal basically was supposed to encompass the internet. Now we also have apps that are graveyards for photos, short videos, shameless self-promotion, all to create ad revenue.

Your own web site works for you; but to Facebook (and services like it, wrongly called “social” media), you are the drone stuck in the matrix giving it life. You are completely dependent on social media platforms and their designs, their rules, their monetization. No skills need to be required, nothing needs to be learned that’s transferrable, other than how to use a stupid (in the sense of limited purpose) app on a phone. You cannot easily control your content, how it displays, how it will be read, and you engage with others in a monetizable manner where each of our “likes” feeds an algorithm to give you more of the same.

This is the end of creativity, or rather, it is the seduction of easiness that allows for the end of creativity. You can still get your own web site. Or even a blog (not the same, but better than social media). But most won’t, because we humans are all creatures of convenience nowadays, and why make the effort when minimal mock-effort is enough?

Why give up a personal space on the web that is really yours to shape for the simulacrum or rather poor parody of such a possibility on so-called social media?

#68: We Do Not Need Enemies

We are seeing increasing tension in the world again. There were a few years, namely the 1990s, when the world seemed to be growing more closely together, overcoming differences and seeking understanding over division (with a few painful exceptions). Then, 9/11 happened, which brought new wars. The transatlantic alliance was put under strain, globalization brought out new players, strengthened older ones, and a slow shift began to recalibrate the power dynamics on a planet that in its current path towards global climate change could need cooperation more than antagonism. The West appears more fractured than ever in the last decades, China’s dictatorship is making gains, Russia, Turkey, Iran, India and Pakistan are flexing their muscles, and only in the Middle East are some signs of hope (how ironic!).

While a global pandemic is still out of control, and other challenges await, we are entertaining the luxury of having arch-enemies again. This is not how civilizations survive, it is how they end.

I grew up under Soviet rule. I have little patience for theoretical discussions over the value of real-existing socialism or communism. As a German, I deeply loathe and oppose any form of fascism and national socialism. There is no value in extremism – on either side, if those are even sides. Between the extermination camps and the killing fields, I fail to see the difference. But these were ideologies run amuck, and people and countries fell succumbed to their spell. Our fight is with the kind of ideas that want to radically remake the world politically, exert absolute power, and create the new man, to cast out the old in the process, mercilessly. But our enemy is not the people themselves, neither the countries.

I may have had to learn Russian at grade 5, which was the language of our Soviet occupiers. The Soviets, as needs mentioning, had a hand in defeating National Socialism together with the West, and in liberating the Germans from a toxic idea, sadly, enabling another toxic idea, but that does not take away from the Soviet sacrifices made to rid the world of Hitler and his ilk. The Soviet Union as an idea and organization also oppressed its people, and their ideas. When learning Russian, I learned about the people and their culture, and I know that without Russian music, I would feel majorly deprived.

We need to see people first, systems second. If we don’t, we enter the domain of arch-enemies and perpetual wars. France and Germany were enemies for so long that it seemed genetic almost, but European integration changed this unhealthy and deadly dynamic completely. This brings hope also to Israel and the Arab world, to Cyprus and Greece, to Armenia and Azerbaijan, to the Congo, to Kashmir, etc. Peace is possible, but it has to be made with great effort. It needs cooperation, shared institutional frameworks, and most of all, a shared conviction that your benefit will be mine also.

Surely, differences and problems need to be addressed. Dictatorships are wrong because they never work in the long run, as they never can allow the development of the full potential of their peoples. For that, it would need absolute free speech and free criticism, and dictatorships are intolerant of that. Once we can make clear that we want peace and cooperation, above all, and that – while we are prepared for war – we will never seek it unless in defense, and that we take a genuine and sincere interest in helping each other face the challenges of today and tomorrow, then things can change.

I have had students and colleagues from all continents, from dozens upon dozens of countries, from every race, color, gender and creed imaginable. We are all the same. I know that sounds preachy, hippie-esque, too optimistic, whatever. It has to be. Hope starts inside, and once we recognize each other, their face, their value, their humanity, their being alive, we can see that what divides us can be overcome. Read Erich Fromm, The Art of Loving, and Martin Buber, I and Thou.

These days, any of our outdated conceptions of who an enemy is will stand in the way of saving the best parts of our way of life, saving our planet’s living beings, and ourselves. The stakes are high. We are also seeing new opportunities out there. A galaxy with more planets than ever thought possible. Sky’s the limit.

Maybe I have just watched too much Stargate. I just finished re-watching an episode dealing with Americans and Russians working together on interplanetary travel. It is a show from the 1990s. We could dream it then, and we should be dreaming it now.

Happy New Year!

#67: This Perfect Virus Exploits Our Weaknesses

“Frightened people. Give me a Dalek any day.”
– The 11th Doctor, in N7.03 “A Town Called Mercy”

2020 is the perfect year for getting an education on reality. We are learning a lot about human nature, different cultures, statistics, as well as biology these days. We should be thankful that things are finally revealed that were apparently unclear to some, mainly those with too optimistic a view on humanity.

This is the year that shows us how we really are. I wrote earlier about how this crisis has revealed to us certain lessons about politics and policy that we probably needed to hear. This is more personal.

We are learning that the virus knows us very well. It knows that we are relational people, and that while some of us, including yours truly, may be able to isolate themselves physically while embracing virtual connections, many if not most among us need physical connections and presence much more than I, personally, would ever have thought before. I am fine with distance; I like closeness too, but do not really need it urgently. Maybe it helps to be happily married to not need other people; but not everybody can ever be that lucky, I realize.

We are learning that we are not good at math, especially probabilities, statistics, exponential growth, etc. We are also not good with hedging risks, and respecting risks in the first place.

We are not patient. It is clear that the Coronavirus crisis will take quite some time still to be settled, if at all. We need to adjust our expectations, curb our desires, hopes, enthusiasms, and – for now, as much as possible, a determined focus on the survival of most of us, young and old.

We are not by nature bad people, but when scared, rationality can leave us quickly and our fear may overcompensate in strange ways. After many hours of trying to understand Covid Denialism in its many forms, I have come to believe that it is just another stress reaction to the crisis, fueled by the fear of losing normality.

I have known of people who passed away, seen people changing beyond recognition, people’s personalities changing, and not for the better. This is the time of friendships and relationships in general stuck in a deep and excruciating stress test that some may not survive, for a variety of reasons.

We are relational beings, and will need to find out how such relationships can survive. The virus is poisoning our social fabric and making us question our lives, our reality, even the existence of the virus itself. We are distracted, we are making mistakes, which is what the virus “wants”.

Easy does it. Be appreciative of the friends you do have. Take care of your relationships with others, cherish the people in your life, now more than ever. They may not listen now, but don’t close your heart. Disagreement on a specific issue should never undo personal attachment and commitment to each other as fellow travelers in this, as it now appears again, valley of darkness…

#65: Sine Ira et Studio: The Strength of Dispassionate Criticism

It is easy to get caught up in the issues of the day. There is always some grave injustice somewhere, always some issues that endanger human life, other life on earth, even the planet herself. It is easy, and very compelling, to translate the emotions we all have about deeply important issues into a language reflecting this emotionality. How else could we speak about it? How could we possibly stay calm in the face of a hurricane threatening the very existence of some or all of us?

There has been the old suggestion to approach such issues without ire and agitation – sine ira et studio. This does not mean that emotionality, agitation, ire even would not be justified; on the contrary. But we need to ask us: What are we trying to achieve? Are we aiming for an end to injustice? Are we trying to convert people to our cause? Are we asking people to change their mind?

Human beings – most animals probably – are prideful. Any criticism that aims to be heard would be wise to be adapted to such a situation. There would not be such a saying if it were easy; it is not. But it works, it is effective, it allows for the respective other to abandon their position eventually with honor. If you respect other people – in spite of their positions – you allow them to respect you in turn, and this opens the path to a necessary conversation and honest exchange in which justice can finally prevail. Convincing others is a skill, it takes time, patience, respect, empathy, even love.

Love towards those that you perceive to have wronged you is an outrageous demand, of course. Socrates was killed for it, so were Jesus, Gandhi, Martin Luther King jr, and so many others. We need to accept who people are, help them accept themselves in their truth, and help them see the consequences of their actions. As it also says, hate the sin, not the sinner. If we believe in social justice, this includes the belief – necessarily so – that each and every human being is precious – whether perpetrator, victim, or neutral party – because life itself is precious and deserves to be treated with dignity.

Ire and rage are easy, studious agitation comes naturally; neither creates sustainable peace. Only if we move beyond feeling righteous in our moral crusade will we be able to see that to change hearts and minds, we need to recognize that even our opponent in a specific matter has both a heart and a mind, no matter how we may resist that notion. The more dispassionate our stance can be (in spite of our emotions within) the better we will face whatever is out there. Stoicism – whether you know it through Emperor Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations or Star Trek‘s Spock – is not an instruction to not have feelings. It is an instruction to utilize your feelings in a manner that they will not stand in the way of solving the problems you need to solve. Sine ira et studio.

#63: Doubt and Faith in Religion

(Before starting this, I would like to remind you, dear reader, of my other writings on religion – specifically, my longer poems “Faith No More” and “Pietà“, which contain some criticism of religion. My relationship with religion is complicated, and my understanding of it maybe a bit unorthodox.)

The core of every respectable religion is faith, but it is a faith that is deeply informed by doubt. Both belong together. Faith has no meaning without doubt: For you do not need faith if you have no doubt, because you would have conviction. Doubt without faith is just hopeless, and this is not the idea of religion.

Conviction may seem a religious position, but it actually should not be. If you are convinced, then you forget that deus semper maior, God is always greater, the Eternal is always beyond our understanding. I may have faith in God, but I cannot know God, that would be blasphemy. God is always defined as that which is beyond humanity, beyond the world, beyond that which we can understand. To claim to know the will of God is lunacy; we may claim to know the communicated way of God, but the will or mind of God is beyond us. “Thou shalt make no graven images of the Eternal/Divine/God” is the safety valve of religion against fundamentalism and wrong conviction.

This makes religion much more similar to science than most people seem to be aware of. In science as well, the larger picture, the complete truth, is hidden as well. All our human knowledge is tentative, and nature is always bigger than us.

Humility is thus at the core of every religion, as a result of doubt (in my faculties) and hope (in the Eternal) that our life is not senseless. We know in a position of somebody who does not know – which is Socrates’ demand “oîda ouk eidōs (οἶδα οὐκ εἰδώς)” – “I know as someone who does not know” – I know in a way of humility, as if I knew nothing, and only then can I really know. I know in a way of skepticism, so that I am critical of everything, but most of all myself, and only then can I find the truth.

Religion does not really give answers, it gives us a question, or better, it puts us in the position to be the one who always questions, who always searches for the truth, will never find the final truth, but will always have hope to one day come closer, and that the result of our search – which we cannot see as mortal beings – will be worthwhile. We may or may not see it after our life on Earth concludes, but that is not really the point either. The point is to live life in such a way that we are always oriented towards the Eternal, towards the Promise, with Faith, but also in doubt which gives us humility.

Religion is thus not a dogma, it is not irrational, it is not some stories about events that seem unbelievable. It is a path, a way, kairos (καιρός), dharma (धर्मः), dao (道), the red road (Čhaŋkú Lúta).

Such an understanding of religion shows the rationality of it, the inclusivity, the global interconnectedness of religion. It prevents you from succumbing on a wrong path that would otherwise lead you astray, that inoculates you against fundamentalism, cults and conspiracy theories, and yes, against those things claimed to be religious that do not align with the principles of humility, doubt, faith and hope.